RESEARCHERS FROM the University of Valencia spent years examining human bones recovered from caves in the Alicante region, only to discover unsavoury signs of cannibalism.
In a recent paper for the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, University of Valencia anthropologist Juan V. Morales-Pérez and colleagues describe their discovery of human bones covered in marks that suggest what they delicately refer to as “anthropophagic practices.”
The bones were uncovered by archaeologists from the Coves de Santa Maria, close to Castell de Castells, a few miles inland from bustling Benidorm and it’s neighbouring coastal town.
Carbon dating suggests at least two different instances of cannibalistic activity took place between 10,000 and 9,000 years ago.
Although 30 different human bones are buried in the cave, the researchers write that there are skull remains from only three individuals: a heavyset person, a more diminutive one, and an infant (the infant skull shows no sign of cannibalism).
At a minimum, then, two people were eaten, and possibly several more. There are no signs of violence, so these people were probably eaten after death.
Identifying cannibalism is a tricky business, for both cultural and scientific reasons. Firstly, we don’t want to believe our ancestors ate each other, and second, distinguishing signs of cooking and eating from other kinds of damage that bones can suffer over thousands of years buried in a cave is difficult.
Morales-Pérez and his team spent several years analyzing the bones, and they identified several telltale signs that point to cannibalism.
In short, when human bones are found in fossilized human excrement (coprolites) or with human bites on them, there is a likelihood of cannibalism.
Other evidence includes cuts on the bones from stone tools used for defleshing, disarticulating (pulling bones apart at the joints), skinning, and cracking open to get at marrow.
And finally, evidence can come from the environment. If the bones are burned, or buried alongside animal remains with similar marks, those are additional clues that point to a feast that included human meat.
Although this discovery offers us the first-ever example of cannibalism in Mesolithic Spain, the practice was not uncommon elsewhere in Europe and the Levant at this time.
Cannibalism was also practiced during the Paleolithic, the “Stone Age” period that stretched from 2.5 million years ago to 11,700 years ago.
The big question for anthropologists is why these Spanish cave-dwellers turned to cannibalism. Were they starving and desperate? Or was this part of a spiritual ritual, perhaps sparked by the cultural rupture between an extremely ancient way of life during the Paleolithic and a radically new one that emerged during the agricultural era?
Desperation or ritual? The truth will almost certainly never be discovered. However, the Mesolithic period in Europe, was a tumultuous time.
Small groups of hunter-gatherers were undergoing a dramatic cultural transformation, making increasingly sophisticated stone tools with wooden components. They were on the cusp of the agricultural revolution, which would grant them a broader range of nutrition sources and greater food security.
The environment was changing, too: the Ice Age was over, but the mid-Pleistocene warming period had not yet begun.
And it now seems apparent that, for whatever reason, in a cave near the coast of Alicante, Spain, 120km south of Valencia, groups of humans began to engage in occasional acts of cannibalism.